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Phil Ochs finally graduates to American Masters status

Phil Ochs in a 1966 concert at Carnegie Hall. PBS photo

My affinity is genuine for the immensely talented and tragically self-destructive Phil Ochs.

But before elaborating, let's note that Dallas-based KERA13's treatment of Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune is pretty much the story of his life.

It aired nationally in most markets on Jan. 23rd as the 26th season opener of PBS' esteemed American Masters series. But the film arrives in D-FW on Saturday, Jan. 28th, shuffled off to KERA World, the 13.2 over-the-air channel that many viewers still aren't getting on their cable or satellite systems. Show times are 8 a.m., 2 p.m. and 9 p.m. Thankfully, the 1 hour, 23 minute film also is newly available online right here.

For some reason I much preferred Ochs to Bob Dylan during their flowering days as folk/protest singers. Ochs' voice indisputably was sweeter and more melodic, and his unflinching anti-war songs had far more topical bite. But as the late Christopher Hitchens notes in There But For Fortune, "Anyone could like Bob Dylan. Everyone did." And Dylan's pre-eminince, throughout Ochs' short life, "was a very big part of Phil's pathology," says Sam Hood, a friend and onetime manager of Greenwich Village's old music mecca, The Gaslight Cafe.

Ochs hung himself on April 9, 1976, checking out at the age of 35. I bought and still have all seven of his studio albums, with the last one, Phil Ochs Greatest Hits, framed and hanging on the walkup wall to my office here at unclebarky.com central. Paradoxically, I bought it in 1970, the last year of my service in the U.S. Marines.

Ochs never had a greatest hit, at least from a chart-topping standpoint. So the album, picturing him in an Elvis-like gold lame suit, was intentionally self-deprecating. Still, many of its songs were first rate. And in the closing minutes of There But For Fortune, Ochs is shown singing the album's "Jim Dean of Indiana," which he would play for hours on end at the piano during the last year of his life.

I last saw Ochs in April 1974 at the Stone Hearth club in Madison, Wisconsin. I was a UW student at the time, writing for The Daily Cardinal. The night's featured attraction was in very bad shape and very, very late to the stage. I first glimpsed him in the men's rest room, banging his head against the wall while taking unsteady aim at a urinal. He was blasted.

He later apologized for his "drunken state" after the club's manager helped to prop him up on a stool. Ochs just didn't like the '70s very much. At one point he blurted, "You can't visit a college campus today without being approached by some spiritual asshole."

It got better, though, as the night went on. Ochs summoned the remains of his ravaged voice, playing and singing with increasing steadiness and power. Pathetic slowly yielded to poignant. Afterward, a small group of us sat at a table with him while he passed the hat for money that supposedly would go toward a Chilean defense fund. It very likely didn't.

There But For Fortune recaptures Ochs in his prime while also documenting his descent into depression and alcoholism. His wife, Alice, brother, Michael and daughter, Meegan, are all newly interviewed. All understandably choose to remember him fondly as a singer/songwriter whose demons did him in.

Near the end, Ochs and Dylan performed together at Carnegie Hall in a 1973 benefit concert titled "An Evening with Salvador Allende" (in honor of both the late overthrown Marxist president of Chile and protest singer Victor Jara, a friend of Ochs who was murdered in the aftermath of the military coup).

To his credit, Dylan signed on belatedly after learning that the concert likely would be canceled without his attendant star power. It then quickly sold out, and There But For Fortune includes several telling still photos of a bloated-looking Ochs performing with his trim,, bewhiskered foe/ally.

Dylan does not, however, contribute an interview for this film. But Joan Baez does, She knew him at his heights and depths. And during Ochs' flickering last months, they performed "There But For Fortune" together at a Central Park concert celebrating the 1975 end of the Vietnam War. Ochs then lost it for good.

"He became as famous as he should have been," says singer Judy Henske. "He never made you feel warm and wonderful" like The Kingston Trio or Peter, Paul and Mary did.

Dylan lives on, ever-productive and the earlier subject of a 2005 American Masters portrait -- No Direction Home -- that ran more than twice as long as There But For Fortune and was directed by Martin Scorsese.

Ochs has now been in his grave longer than he was alive. He has only himself to blame for that. And some of us still take it pretty personally.


Addendum: Got a few minutes? Here's one of my favorite Phil Ochs songs, among many:

Made by thoroughbreds, HBO's Luck also can be a daze at the races

Nick Nolte with his prized possession in Luck. HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 29th at 8 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, John Ortiz, Jason Gedrick, Jill Hennessy, Richard Kind, Ian Hart, Kevin Dunn, Ritchie Coster, Tom Payne, Kerry Condon, Gary Stevens, with recurring appearances by Joan Allen, Michael Gambon, Alan Rosenberg, Ted Levine
Produced by: David Milch, Michael Mann, Carolyn Strauss

A horse is a horse, of course of course. If only it were that easy with Luck, a measured and at times almost mystical series devoted to the so-called "Sport of Kings" -- and degenerate gamblers.

HBO took the unprecedented step of sending out all nine episodes of Season 1. And you'll pretty much win in the end if you ride this mount all the way to the finish line. Even though the overall uplifting denouement isn't entirely earned. And the mind games involving Dustin Hoffman's character and a trio of lethal big businessmen remain head-dizzying at best.

Hoffman, in his first TV series, is but one of a quartet of very estimable older men. Nick Nolte is also a featured cast member while the executive producers are real-life horseplayer David Milch (Deadwood) and Michael Mann (Miami Vice). That's a lot of auteur/artiste power, even for HBO.

Luck was sneak-previewed in December following the Season 2 finale of Boardwalk Empire. Sunday's re-launch will be from the very beginning, with Hoffman's Chester "Ace" Bernstein in the first frame and briefly behind bars. But he's being freed after a three-year sentence, having taken a cocaine-dealing rap rather than having his grandson do the time.

Ace is picked up by his extremely loyal bodyguard/driver, Gus Demitriou (TV vet Dennis Farina). They aim to settle a score by duping the aforementioned trio of skullduggery specialists into popping for a would-be gambling Garden of Eden in which both horse track betting and casino games are suckers' baits. Or something like that. It can sometimes be quite hard to tell.

Principal among the conscience-less financiers is Michael Gambon as the really scary Michael. But he doesn't show up until Episode 4, along with Joan Allen's first appearance as a horse rescue samaritan named Claire LeChea.

Luck's opening episode is thoroughly populated, though. Perhaps over-populated. Nolte plays grizzled Kentucky trainer-turned-owner Walter Smith, who talks as though he's just gargled gravel. His "Big Horse" is the son of a prize-winning dad who met a tragic end. This continues to deeply haunt Walter.

The degenerate gambler populace at Santa Anita Park is represented by the track-addled quartet of Jerry, Marcus, Lonnie and Renzo (Jason Gedrick, Kevin Dunn, Ian Hart, Ritchie Coster). They're combining their dwindling resources in pursuit of a nearly $2.7 million Pick Six jackpot, with Jerry the expert handicapper (and poker addict) and Marcus the wheezing wheelchair-bound super-sourpuss with a heart disease.

There's also a hard-to-understand trainer/schemer named Turo Escalante (John Ortiz), whose put-upon girlfriend, Jo (Jill Hennessy), is one of the track veterinarians. And stuttering Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind), crudely dubbed "Porky Pig" by Escalante, is a jockey agent whose clients currently include an aging drunk (real-life jockey Gary Stevens as Ronnie Jenkins) and an impetuous rookie who has trouble making weight limits (Tom Payne as Leon).

Add a spunky Irish lass/apprentice jock named Rosie (Kerry Condon) and assorted other characters dropping in and out. Sprinkle with track jargon that may be a foreign language to many. "Vigorish," for instance, is not a high-voltage energy drink. It's the amount charged for making a bet with a bookie -- usually 10 percent.

Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina as "Ace" and "The Greek." HBO photo

Luck's focal point is still the horse racing, though. And thankfully, they're both plentiful and exhilarating. None more so than Episode 4's first time out for Nolte's "Big Horse," with Rosie in the saddle and the owner paying rapt attention while repeatedly banging on his binocs. It's all perfectly shot and choreographed, the sort of edge-of-your-seat stuff that drives Luck into a cinematic winner's circle.

Hoffman and Nolte share roughly an equal amount of screen time, but neither gets as much to do as the hardscrabble quartet of degenerates sharing rooms in the lousily appointed Oasis Motel.

Luck's two marquee stars have nary a scene together during the entire nine-episode run. But their respective blue chip horses are fated to face off in the series' climactic $1 million Western Derby. Hit men also are involved. And it all gets pretty taut, with Ace's hardware man pitted against his boss's would-be assassins.

Farina has never been better, but Hoffman certainly has. His Ace is one tightly wound dude, a collection of ever-thin smiles, prison-fed insecurities and condescending retorts. It's an interesting characterization, and Hoffman is likely to come away with an Emmy nomination because, well, he's Dustin Hoffman. But Luck's surprisingly best performance is from Kind, whose hot-tempered but pathetic Joey is a revelation given the actor's previous rep as a serviceable sitcom supporting player.

Luck also is graced by a standout opening theme song and race track atmospherics from head to toe. Horse track betting may be slowly dying on the vine, but this series makes one want to get out there and at least throw around a fistful of $2 bets.

Problem is, how many viewers will buy into this series in the first place? Luck is almost certain to be a tough sell, with its first season perhaps an odds-on favorite to be its last. If so, most of the loose ends are knotted in the end. And the climactic big race in fact has a winner rather than a cliffhanger freeze frame.

Having seen the whole thing, I'd say you should give Luck a chance to slowly pay off. It proudly depicts a gritty/picturesque world that the ABC Family channel's Wildfire only airbrushed during its 2005-08 run. This here is the real deal, with Milch and Mann using HBO's house money to do it their way. Any takers?


Fox's Touch can be tough to grasp

More quiet time: Kiefer Sutherland, David Mazouz of Touch. Fox photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Jan. 25th at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Kiefer Sutherland, David Mazouz, Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Produced by: Tim Kring, Francis Lawrence, Peter Chernin, Katherine Pope, Suzan Bymel, Carol Barbee, Kiefer Sutherland

The numbers, the premise, the interconnectivity and Keifer Sutherland as a beaten-down airport baggage handler. None of these quite add up in Fox's Touch.

Not that all involved aren't wholly well-intended in this far-flung aspirational new series from the creator and executive producer of NBC's Heroes. Fox is launching it via a special preview episode following the Wednesday, Jan. 25th edition of American Idol. The official series premiere isn't until March 19th, when Touch is slated to follow House.

An opening voice-over from the otherwise mute 11-year-old Jake Bohm (David Mazouz) tries to explain what he and the series are all about. Jake has made it his life's work to mix and match numbers whose "patterns never lie." He's thereby able to "make the connections for those who need to find each other. The ones whose lives need to touch." Ergo, the kid's over over-sized notebooks are jam-packed with long strings of numbers.

All of this makes his poor dad's head hurt. Martin Bohm (Sutherland) is a widower whose well-to-do stockbroker wife, Sarah, perished in the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks. She's left him with a nice three-bedroom loft in a desirable Manhattan neighborhood.

But Martin's penance is Jake, who has never spoken a word and freaks out when touched. It's put dad on a downward spiral. Once a "highly paid reporter at the Herald" in the expository words of social worker Clea Hopkins (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Martin in recent years has been a doorman, a cab driver, a construction worker and now a JFK Airport baggage handler. He hasn't quite hit rock-bottom yet. Otherwise he'd be a blogger.

Young Jake enjoys the lost-and-found cell phones that his brother brings him from work. Offering him a fresh batch is a way to talk him down from the towers he tends to climb during school hours. Another such excursion leads to an intervention by Clea, who thinks that Jake might do better in foster care.

Touch otherwise capsulizes Jake's world view via the opening episode's oft-subtitled jaunts abroad.

A teenager in Baghdad aspires to be the next Chris Rock, but his parents face destitution after their in-home bakery oven burns out. Asian call girls hope to make a struggling Australian singer's video go viral. A London businessman is apoplectic about losing his cell phone because it has the last images of his recently deceased daughter. And closer to home, a firefighter keeps playing the same numbers in the lottery while also having two altercations with Sutherland's Martin.

There's also professor Arthur Teller (guest star Danny Glover), who all too conveniently and unconvincingly unlocks the key to Jake's extraordinary abilities to see the past, present and future -- often all at once. Thus informed, Martin quickly gets with the program, enlisting Clea as his helpmate after she, too, sees the light.

Sutherland's role is a notable departure from 24's Jack Bauer, although he still tends to speak in breathless intonations when under pressure. In both dramas, cell phones are indispensable supporting characters.

It's all a lot to digest, let alone swallow whole. Tim Kring, the Heroes maestro who's also behind Touch, told TV critics during a January "press tour" session that he's a champion of "social benefit storytelling, the idea of trying to use archetypal narrative to create and promote a positive energy in the world."

That's a noble-sounding aim. And Touch certainly is a change of pace from corpse-choked police procedurals or buddy/buddy/buddy sitcoms.

Whether it will grab you, though, is another matter entirely. Wednesday's opener is a whirlwind of activity and sometimes a breath of fresh air. Still, it's hard to imagine Touch pulling all of this off for any length of time. Especially when the first episode leaves so very many p(l)otholes on those multiple roads to nirvana-ville. Its spirit is willing, but the construction has foundation problems.


Winter TV "press tour" picture page (ta-dah)

Your friendly content provider is newly returned from the annual winter Television Critics Association "press tour." And all you get again are some of these lousy pictures I took.

Actually, some of them aren't too bad. And given all the restrictions at hand, you have to pick your allotted spots before taking a shot. Here we go.
Ed Bark

Courteney Cox was sorta ready for her closeup at Cougar Town party.

Arsenio Hall makes the best of being on The Celebrity Apprentice.

Chelsea Handler hangs tough without her trademark vodka.

James Van Der Beek plays himself, with Krysten Ritter as "The B" in the ABC spring sitcom Don't Trust the B -- in Apartment 23.

Presenting the great Tony Bennett after his performance for PBS.

Churros were served on behalf of the new CBS sitcom Rob.

Don't know who this is. Didn't think you'd care. Enjoy.

Zeroing in on Mad Men leading man Jon Hamm.

It's good time Annie Potts of ABC's Dallas-set GCB.

The Voice judge Blake Shelton hearts host Carson Daly.

All grown up: Tina Yothers from Family Ties and Tyler James Williams of Everybody Hates Chris. OMG, that's her!!! Yep.

Ashley Judd and Cliff Curtis of ABC's upcoming Missing

When Harry met Lisa -- on the NBC Universal red carpet.

Mark Harmon finds there's no harm in signing an autograph.

Laura Prepon segues from That '70s Show to Chelsea title role.

Thanks for looking. You've been a lovely audience. Buh-bye now.

Motley crew: FX's Unsupervised gives cartoon characters another case of the miseries

Best pals Gary, Joel and Darius of Unsupervised. FX photo

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 19th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on FX
Voiced by: David Hornsby, Justin Long, Kristen Bell, Romany Malco, Fred Armisen, Andre Sogliuzzo, Kaitlin Olson, Maria Bamford, Scott Marder, Rob Rosell, Alexa Vega, Sally Kellerman
Produced by: Rob Rosell, Scott Marder, David Hornsby

Being a cartoon character can be a beating these days.

Not from a physical standpoint. Wile E. Coyote, Popeye and Sylvester the Cat took far more lump-raising punishment than any of today's made-for-TV drawings. Now it's the mental anguish, the mind games, the head-hurting realization that you're a dead solid loser.

Fox's new animated version of Napoleon Dynamite began by giving its namesake a very bad case of forehead zits after his older brother hit him with a godawful piece of greasy gas station chicken. What's for dinner? Usually crap.

Down and out is also a way of life in FX's Unsupervised, which premieres Thursday, Jan 19th at 9:30 p.m. (central) following the Season 3 launch of the animated spy spoof Archer.

Best pals Gary and Joel (Justin Long, David Hornsby) are high school kids without an upstanding parental unit between them. Joel's mom and dad are entirely unseen in the first two episodes sent for review. But FX publicity materials say they're elderly and "uninvolved."

So Joel mostly hangs out at Gary's dump, where stepmom Carol (Kaitlin Olson) is a listless pothead who's dating another loser after her loser husband ran off and left her.

The two boys strive to fit in, get laid and somehow rise above their stations. But they also share an oddly uplifting joie de vivre, accentuating positives in a manner that make them more Bert and Ernie than Beavis and Butt-head.

Schoolmates include gal pal Megan (Kristen Bell taking time away from her new co-starring role in Showtime's House of Lies) and obese black dude Darius (Romany Malco), who's no Fat Albert but lets the sun shine through his basically upbeat disposition. All four are fated to forever muddle through, it seems. But their shoulders aren't slumped just yet.

Also chipping in are a divorced Hispanic neighbor named Martin (Fred Armisen from both Saturday Night Live and Portlandia) and Sid the muscular Aussie (Andre Sogliuzzo), who's always shirtless and something of a role model.

The language is dicey throughout, but not really gratuitous under the circumstances. One of the tamer lines comes from Megan, who wonders, "Why are guys so obsessed with breasts? They're just mounds of fat."

This doesn't at all deter Gary and Joel from diggin' 'em.

Hornsby, the aforementioned voice of Joel, is also a co-creator and producer of Unsupervised. Earlier this season, he created and co-starred in the CBS sitcom How to Be A Gentleman, which was canceled in an eye blink after losing too much of its lead-in audience from The Big Bang Theory.

Gentleman wasn't all that bad, and neither is Unsupervised. Still, it's hard to envision it as a compatible followup to the perfect pulchritude on frequent display in the smoothly smarmy Archer.

In contrast, just about everything is unkempt in Unsupervised, particularly Joel's virtually decomposed hand-me-down underwear. But Gary steps up to buy him a new pair, and the boys end the first episode happily sleeping out on a rooftop.

Such are the hard-won charms of this show, which has its sweet spots and occasionally deft one-liners. As when Joel tries to butter up a well-to-do divorced dentist in hopes that he'll agree to a blind date with dope-addled Carol.

"Without you we wouldn't have no smiles," he tells him.

Unsupervised might induce at least a small handful of smiles per episode. But only if its mood strikes you.


Curvy women of Cougar Town replacing men in drag of Work It

Courteney Cox will be easier on the eyes than faux women of Work It. ABC photos

ABC's critically reviled Work It, canceled after a two-episode infliction, will be replaced on Valentine's night by the returning Cougar Town, ABC announced Tuesday.

It was an unexpectedly quick reprieve for Cougar Town, whose creator Bill Lawrence, had been notably unhappy with ABC's treatment of the show. So much so that he held his own guerilla party Jan. 9th on the eve of ABC's day-long presentations to TV critics during the just-concluded winter "press tour" in Pasadena, CA.

Lawrence and the stars of the show, including Courteney Cox, gathered in a hotel bar to pointedly express their concerns before ABC entertainment president Paul Lee told TV writers on the following morning that Cougar Town was "tentatively in there for March."

"We love the show . . . We're going to give it a really good launchpad," Lee said, commending Lawrence for what he termed a "pirate job" of getting the word out about Cougar Town.

Cougar Town will follow Tim Allen's Last Man Standing on Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. (central). Reruns of the Allen sitcom are filling that slot until Feb. 14th.

***Two big blows to my native state's football pride bookended Uncle Barky's trip to and from the Pasadena. CA site of winter's annual TV press tour.

On Jan. 2nd, the day before departure, my alma mater Wisconsin Badgers lost their second straight Rose Bowl in heartbreaking last-second fashion. This time it was Oregon; the last time, TCU.

On Jan. 15th, the day before returning home to D-FW, the No. 1-seeded Green Bay Packers were thoroughly outplayed and beaten by the visiting New York Giants.

But the great state of cheese, beer and brats also won a highly unusual prize over the weekend in a contest where Miss Wisconsins had long been treated like moo cows.

Twenty-three-year-old Kenosha native Laura Kaeppeler became the state's second Miss America ever, and the first since since 1973, when Terry Meeusen wore the crown.

Kenosha, located three miles from formative Barky's hometown of Racine, Wisconsin, was a prime beer-drinking venue of my misspent youth. That's because the suds-draining age was 18 in Keno and 21 in Racine. We took full advantage, often stupidly.

It's hardly a fair trade -- one Miss America for two punch-in-the-face football losses on national stages. But Kaeppeler proved to be a gamer in Vegas while the Pack and Bucky went down for the count. Say cheese -- and smile at the irony of it all.